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A Cemetery for One

Along Ewing Avenue, you’ll find Chicago’s smallest graveyard.

Photo: Jessica Mlinaric

I can’t drive on the Skyway without thinking of Andreas von Zirngibl, the sole occupant of Chicago’s smallest graveyard. He’s still down there, if you can find his resting place among the industrial detritus that seems to sprawl endlessly beneath the soaring expressway. Zirngibl was a Bavarian soldier who helped defeat Napoleon before immigrating to Chicago with his family around 1854. He died the following year and was buried on his land according to his wishes. After the area around the old Zirngibl homestead began to industrialize, his heirs won a court battle that allowed the gravesite to be preserved in perpetuity.

I’d heard about the site, near the Ewing Avenue Bridge, a few years ago and wanted to visit, but I was told that the land surrounding it belonged to a scrap metal recycler and was fenced off. Zirngibl’s resting place, it seemed, was now a junkyard, and an abandoned one at that. Trying my luck, I left a message with the recycling company, and to my surprise I heard back. The security manager, a laconic ex-cop named Pete, met me at 93rd and Ewing the next day and led me past a locked gate to the weed-choked site. The original headstone, once protected by a white picket fence, has been replaced by a polished-concrete slab that’s cordoned off by thick metal chains. I read the epitaph: “A Veteran of 1816 Battle of Waterloo.” (They got the date wrong by a year, but as far as I know, no one’s complained.)

The air was still, and, aside from the roar of the Skyway, the spot was surprisingly quiet, much of the industry around here having packed up and left in recent years. The sun shone on the tombstone, and for a moment I could almost picture this long-dead soldier’s grave as it must have looked on the day he’d been laid to rest.

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